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How to Talk to a Parent with Dementia

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A young woman laughing with her older adult mother.

If you have a loved one with dementia, you know that it can affect their memory, cognitive skills, and reasoning. Even if a loved one resides in memory care, where staff are trained in Alzheimer’s and dementia care, adult children can still find it challenging to communicate with parents effectively.

However, with the right guidance and tips on how to talk with a parent with dementia, you can significantly improve your interactions and provide both your parent and yourself with moments of clarity and connection. You can improve communication with the following tips:

  • Create a calm environment
  • Use simple language and short sentences
  • Maintain eye contact and non-verbal cues
  • Be patient and allow extra time
  • Avoid arguments and correcting
  • Use visual aids and reminders
  • Listen and validate emotions
  • Adapt to changing abilities

Understanding Dementia

Dementia is an umbrella term for conditions characterized by a decline in memory, reasoning, and other cognitive abilities—affecting a person’s daily functioning. Dementia is not a normal part of aging, but it mostly affects older adults. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.

Dementia symptoms can vary in individuals. Cognitive problems with memory, attention, reasoning, judgment, communication, and visual perception can present with the following signs:

  • Getting lost in familiar surroundings
  • Using unusual words for familiar objects
  • Forgetting names of close family members or friends
  • Forgetting old memories
  • Not being able to complete tasks independently

Tips for Talking to a Parent with Dementia

Communication often becomes challenging as dementia progresses. Loved ones with dementia may experience difficulties with finding the right words, understanding conversations, or expressing themselves clearly. Recognizing these potential obstacles is the first step in evolving your communicative approach.

Create a Calm Environment

The environment can influence communication with a loved one, as it can either support or overwhelm a parent with dementia. For effective communication, you can limit distractions when talking to a parent by turning off the TV or radio, closing the doors to drown out noise, or drawing the curtains if necessary. A calm environment can help maintain your parent’s focus on the conversation.

Use Simple Language & Short Sentences

Complex phrases and lengthy sentences can confuse a parent with dementia. Adult children can use straightforward language and speak in short, concise sentences. Also, give them time to understand and respond without rushing or jumping to different topics.

Maintain Eye Contact & Non-Verbal Cues

If language and understanding pose a challenge, sometimes non-verbal communication speaks louder than words. Gentle eye contact with a parent can convey your attention and support, while your body language with gestures and pointing can lead to effective communication. 

Be Patient & Allow Extra Time

Patience is a virtue, especially when talking with a parent with dementia. Your parent may need additional time to process what you’ve said and to formulate a response. When you do this, it encourages them to continue having a conversation and reduces the chance of them becoming frustrated. 

Avoid Arguments & Correcting

It’s often fruitless to argue or correct a parent with dementia, as they may not remember some facts or understand their errors. Instead, you can repeat what they said to gain clarity or try to redirect conversations toward another topic they enjoy.

Use Visual Aids & Reminders

Photographs, objects, or other visual cues might help your parent engage more deeply when talking with them, or they may trigger memories they can talk about. You can use visual cues to help demonstrate things or activities to encourage participation. 

Listen & Validate Emotions

For a parent with dementia, emotions can be real and significant, even if the reasons behind them may be unclear. Active listening and validating their feelings can foster a supportive environment for communication.

Adapt to Changing Abilities

The skills and abilities of a parent with dementia can fluctuate depending on the stage and progression. Be prepared to adapt your approach as needed, staying flexible and responsive to their current state.

Common Challenges & Solutions

A young woman jogging by a body of water with her older adult father.

Adult children will likely encounter various communication barriers with a parent with dementia. When direct conversation becomes difficult, you can consider alternative methods, like music therapy, creative expression, simple activities they enjoy, or gentle physical touch like holding hands. Remember, their ability to sense emotion remains, even if their ability to articulate diminishes.

Additional Support & Resources

Adult children of a parent with dementia don’t have to go through this journey alone. Memory care communities specialize in dementia care, and there are support groups and online forums. These can provide invaluable advice tailored to your unique circumstances, presenting new strategies for communication and coping mechanisms for adult children and their parents. 

Understanding Dementia Care

Communicating with a parent with dementia is about navigating a condition that constantly changes. It requires compassion, patience, and a deep well of understanding. While it might be a tough challenge, every effort you make strengthens the bond you share and provides comfort to your loved one in a way that resonates far beyond words. 

Contact Liana of Venice to learn about dementia care for a loved one and how we can support them. 


Written by Angela Clark

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